Christmas donation takes a family off the streets

After being turned away, six people have a place to sleep tonight

Amanda holds Shane's hands as he describes his family's ordeal with living out of a van for months. (Jonathan House, The Portland Tribune)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — When is a coincidence not just a coincidence?

How many coincidences does it take to add up to something more?

Shane and Amanda were down on their luck. The engaged couple — who between them have four children ranging in age from 7 to 11 — had been living out of their van ever since leaving Grants Pass three months ago. Shane, who declined to give his last name, says he is still “neck deep” in a divorce over what he calls a domestic violence situation.

Shane and Amanda go over a box full of toys and gift certificates that a donor via Catholic Charities sent them, so their children could have gifts at Christmas. (Jonathan House, The Portland Tribune)
Shane and Amanda go over a box full of toys and gift certificates that a donor via Catholic Charities sent them, so their children could have gifts at Christmas. (Jonathan House, The Portland Tribune)

He worries most about what this is doing to the kids — some of whom have special needs.

“We’ve spent everything that we had just to keep going,” Shane says, noting that the couple skips meals at times when their children don’t have enough to eat. “The babies come first in everything.”

Shane, a military veteran and erstwhile construction worker, says he has had to learn to just breathe.

“Being homeless kinda makes you look at life way differently,” says Shane, who is unemployed. “I never thought that this would happen to us. I would like to think that I had a better plan put together for the future. I really didn’t see that curve ball.”

Shane and his fiancee say they were turned away from charity after charity. Program after program. Government agency after government agency. They don’t fit in any of the boxes.

Molly O’Donnell, program director at Catholic Charities on Southeast Powell Boulevard, talked to the couple on Friday, Dec. 18.

“Frankly, when they came to us, their biggest presenting need was food,” O’Donnell says.

Catholic Charities has programs for pregnant women, immigrants, homeless women and refugees, among others.

“They didn’t really fit into those categories, if you will,” O’Donnell says. So she, like many social workers before her, regretfully turned them away.

O’Donnell put them on a waiting list for a family shelter, but the majority of shelter space in Portland is reserved for singles.

“The shelter system here in Portland is horrendous,” she says. “There’s not really much we can do but wait.”

Shane, Amanda and their four kids would be homeless for Christmas.

A woman’s vision

Tara was visiting with her dad one day when she was struck by how much she had.

The Troutdale woman, who declined to give her last name, says she was thinking a lot about the plight of some people in Africa and in the Middle East and comparing it to the new house she just moved into, and the old house in Wood Village that her young family was planning to rent out.

“I was standing in the living room of our new home and I thought: ‘Gosh, we have so much. So much more than we need,’” Tara says. Then a forceful thought occurred to her: “You’re going to sell the old house and you’re going to give the money away.”

But Tara knew she had to talk to her husband, Matt — the more logical, rational one, as she says. Surely, he would never agree.

“Listen, I have to talk to you,” Tara said to Matt. “I had this really kind of blinding, beautiful message. I got this really strong intuition that we should sell the house and give the money away.”

Matt thought for a moment.

“We can do that,” he said.

“That, like, blew me away,” Tara says.

So the couple — he, a nurse; she, a stay-at-home mom; both in their late-20s with a 1-year-old son — stayed up talking about it until 2 a.m.

“Is it foolish to give so much money away?” Tara and Matt asked themselves. “Where would we donate the money? How would we do that?”

The couple sold the house in October and have been giving away chunks of the money to charities helping people in impoverished parts of Africa and the Middle East.

They told only a handful of friends about the donations, worried about other people judging them for being frivolous, foolhardy or boastful.

“I know a lot of people would think: ‘Gee, you should put that away for your future,’” Tara says. “Sometimes the morally right thing to do feels like the crazy thing.”

Tara says she has been transformed by parenthood and sees recent events, such as the mass shootings, as a cry from a “wounded world.” She felt an overwhelming need to do something about it.

“I want my son to have a more peaceful and loving world than I do,” Tara says.

A happy ending

It was after 5 p.m. the Friday before Christmas. Offices were closing down, and Shane and Amanda were trying to figure out their next moves without any leads. It had become a familiar task.

“We’ve had hope,” Amanda says, “and it just crumbled to the ground.”

“All we have right now is boxes of food and clothes, and blankets,” Shane says. “They have no toys.”

The phone rang. It was Catholic Charities’ Molly O’Donnell, asking them to come to the office. Shane worried they were in trouble.

Tara had been up half the night trying to think of a charity that could fulfill the wish that her husband had voiced earlier that day: that they give to more local causes instead of the international charities they had been donating to.

Tara, who is Catholic, called Catholic Charities and talked to a woman who had the same first name as her mother: Molly. She said they wanted to make a sizable donation, perhaps to help a family, perhaps one that was homeless — and not just for Christmas. For as long as it took to get them on their feet.

It had been 10 minutes since O’Donnell turned Shane and Amanda away.

“Makes you think something else was involved there,” O’Donnell says, noting how unusual such a large and unrestricted private donation is. “It was amazing. The whole thing was very providential, from my standpoint.”

O’Donnell gave Shane and Amanda a gift certificate to Fred Meyer and promised to put them up in a hotel nearby until shelter space became available.

“I cried,” says Shane, a gray-bearded man who doesn’t look particularly prone to crying. “I was trying not to be scared for my children. For my family.”

The family bought a hot plate and feasted on tacos that night — everyone got enough hot food to eat. Then they bought a tiny Christmas tree — with lights.

Shane says the kids spend hours decorating and redecorating the tree with homemade ornaments.

By the next Tuesday, O’Donnell had put together winter coats and a basket of toys and books for the kids, along with wrapping paper.

For the first time in what feels like a very long time, Shane and Amanda say they have hope for the future.

“In a month? I’d like to see my children have a place where they can call home,” Shane says. “A year from now? That’s a year from now. That’s hard to look at when you’re living day-to-day. A year. That’s like a fantasy.”

But if Shane met his benefactors, Tara and Matt?

“I don’t normally do this and most people who know me would be surprised to hear me say this: I’d give that person a hug and thank them,” he says. “And I don’t hug. But I would.”

And what does Tara think about Shane and Amanda showing up right when she called?

“I was surprised, but I guess I’m a really spiritual person, so I’m always looking for those things,” she says. “I guess you could call it a coincidence, but I don’t really believe that.”

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN media affiliate. 

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